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The Surname Game Getting engaged was easy. Choosing a name was the hard part.


Illustration of hand with wedding ring reading 'Cleveland'.

Bryan and I got engaged simply enough. We were lounging on the couch one afternoon when we decided it was time to tie the knot. The wedding plans that followed went just as smoothly—except for one stumbling block: the decision whether to keep my maiden name or adopt Bryan’s surname. As things turned out, picking a name was a far tougher choice than picking the meal, music or myriad other wedding options. (Though you’d never know it reading the covers of bridal magazines.)

As a women’s studies graduate and proud feminist, I admittedly have some strong opinions about the significance of keeping one’s maiden name. I wanted to retain the sense of independence and autonomy that keeping it signified. At the same time, I felt some trepidation that this might upset Bryan. There was also something undeniably warm and appealing about taking on his surname as a symbol of starting our own family. But it didn’t feel right. “Cleveland” was my identity, my roots, my name!

As the big day approached, the “Will you change your name?” question popped up again and again. Despite never hearing a winning argument on why I should change it, all the questions and opinions still managed to plant seeds of doubt. I mulled over whether Bryan would feel disappointed that I wanted to keep my name. I worried about how I’d respond if he pushed the issue. Would I still want to get married if it meant having to change my name?

One sleepless night, I decided I couldn’t wait any longer. I needed to hear how he felt about the subject. Bryan was just dozing off when I gave him a nudge and asked him what he thought. He turned on the lamp, rolled over onto his elbow and with a knowing smile said that he totally understood my position. (I can’t say I’m that surprised; he’s quite the catch.) Bryan explained that it wasn’t a priority for him; what was important was that I do what felt right. His support made me feel validated and empowered enough to table the decision with my mom, who proudly admitted that it was just what she expected from me.

Bryan and I never did formally discuss the issue with my in-laws, but the subject did come up once, by chance, a few months before the wedding, as we were cleaning up after dinner in their kitchen. As new grandparents (by way of my sister-in-law), they had babies on the brain and wanted to know how we planned to name our hypothetical children. They were fine with my plans to stay with my maiden name but were curious how this would impact their family tree. Bryan and I responded that, with our good genes, we were sure that our children would be able to handle a hyphen. This seemed to satisfy the in-laws, who haven’t brought it up since.

On our wedding day, I walked down the aisle as Karen Cleveland and walked right back up it the same. Back at the office, I was one of a handful of married women who did not order new business cards with a new surname. After all my soul-searching, I now know better than to question the others’ choice. But I sleep easy with my decision to remain Cleveland. Even though my husband and I go to bed with two different surnames, we wake up as one very happily married couple.